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Visually reminiscent of the dignified and stately dramas of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, with fewer political undercurrents, Larry Yang’s Mountain Cry is an assured and tasteful romantic drama that touches on small town groupthink and humanity’s penchant for self-preservation at another’s expense. A Beijing film festival project market script pitch winner (coproduced by Village Roadshow Asia), Mountain Cry is the kind of handsome and poised drama with an appealing young cast that will play well in China and across the region. Festival life is a sure bet but overseas art house release should also be in the cards.
It’s the mid-1980s in an insular village in Shanxi’s Taihang Mountains, where La Hong (Yu Ailei, Black Coal, Thin Ice) has settled with his mute wife, Hong Xia (Lang Yueting, Johnnie To’s Office), and their two children. The marriage, however, isn’t a happy one, and is defined by La Hong’s abuse and violence toward Hong Xia. Overcome by a random bout of paternal instinct, La Hong goes out into the hills one afternoon to pick wild fruit for his daughter and meets his gory and untimely fate in one of the many animal traps set by Han Chong (Wang Ziyi, Drug War, Lang’s co-star in Office). When La Hong finally succumbs to his wounds the village council, led by Qiliu (Xu Caigen) and Fatboy (Zhao Chendong), declares Han Chong will have to provide for the new widow until she decides on what kind of compensation would suit her. For now, all Hong Xia wants is to feed her kids.
That’s the framework upon which Yang hangs a fairly standard melodramatic romance. Of course there’s far more at work narratively in Mountain Cry than meets the eye, and as the film flashes back to Hong Xia’s past and how she came to the village with her thug of a husband her relationship with Han Chong deepens. And in many ways it’s that relationship that turns the village against Hong Xia, starting with Chong’s one-time paramour Qin Hua (Guo Jin), whose vindictive side emerges once she realizes he’s lost interest in her. As the layers are peeled back on Hong Xia’s history the village—which illegally buried La Hong’s body to avoid “looking bad”—becomes increasingly unwelcoming; the demands of “She’s got to go” become louder and more frequent. The only voice of any reason at all turns out to be Old Chong (Cheng Taishen, Biutiful), Han Chong’s father and a man with his own troubled past and who sympathizes with the widow’s outsider predicament.
Yang’s earlier features, most prominently the adoption drama about a dying man looking or his birth parents Sorry I Love You, were competently made but unremarkable dramas with a social question at the core. Mountain Cry is a significant step forward artistically for Yang while remaining within his thematic wheelhouse. The script touches ever so lightly on the issue of child abduction and illegal adoptions so rampant in China but those issues linger on the periphery so as not to become a distraction that could be perceived as agitating.
At its heart Mountain Cry is an old school tragic romance that inevitably ends with the central lovers being separated, and the hoary story would be less engaging were it not for Lang and Wang in the leads. Both are infinitely more compelling than they were in Office, with Lang in particular doing a solid job of giving clear voice to a voiceless woman. Lang’s understated body language conveys everything we need to know about Hong Xia and she never slips into over-expressiveness. Wang’s Han Chong experiences more growth, and his shift from resentful, ambitious young man (initially he worries his prospects for a wife will be shattered by his debt) to selfless friend and partner is an organic one. The film is technically polished on every level, and Nicolas Errera’s (Benny Chans’s The White Storm) string heavy, sweeping score sets an old fashioned tone without overwhelming Patrick Murguia’s (AMC’s Low Winter Sun) warm, unfussy, intimate images.
Production company: Hairun Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures Asia
Cast: Lang Yueting, Wang Ziyi, Cheng Taishen, Yu Ailei, Guo Jin, Xu Caigen, Zhao Chendong, Li Siying
Director: Larry Yang
Screenwriter: Larry Yang, based on the novel by Ge Shuiping
Producer: Ellen Eliasoph, Victoria Hon
Executive producer: Liu Yanming, Greg Basser
Director of photography: Patrick Murguia
Production designer: Jeffrey Kong
Costume designer: Chen Yong
Editor: Super Zhang
Music: Nicolas Errera
World sales: Fortissimo Films
No rating, 107 minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival